“Things are starting to get weird.”
Jessica Lea Mayfield, whose Nonesuch Records debut Tell Me is in stores now, is on the phone from her home in Ohio and we’re having a good laugh over her recent success. It’s beer o’clock on both ends of the phone, the last interview in a long week of talking to complete strangers for the two of us. Rather than the usual artist-interviewer formality, the conversation feels more like two co-workers standing around the water cooler shooting the shit and goofing off, killing the last few minutes before quitting time and trying to let off a week’s worth of steam.
“I think every possible publication has had something to say about it. I’ve kind of been in shock that everyone knows that I exist. It was reviewed in People Magazine – totally random. A friend was like ‘I saw you in People!’ and I was like really? It’s probably in Cat Fancy too – if not I have to have my publicist track that one down [laughs]. It’s almost every day where I get something in my e-mail saying, ‘You were reviewed in this magazine…’ and I’m like, ‘What the hell is that? How do all of these people know that I exist?’”
Mayfield’s laughter underlines the shock of suddenly being propelled from the cloistered world of indie rock to the edge of the mainstream within, really, just a matter of weeks. A few hours after we hang up she’ll be making her national television debut on Late Night with David Letterman. Spin Magazine named her one of the “Next Big Things” for 2011 a week earlier, and the morning after Letterman she leaves for a whirlwind press tour of Europe, before returning to the States for ten-plus shows at SXSW and more stateside touring. And the media adoration ball has barely started rolling.
Tell Me, produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach at his Akron studio, is the kind of record that makes music writers want to wake up in the morning. Full of rich sonic textures, emotionally complex lyrics and undeniably catchy hooks, it’s no surprise – from this author’s perspective at least – that the record has gained maximum traction with minimal prodding from the industry machine. It’s the sort of finely crafted, deeply personal album that can make an evangelist out of even the most curmudgeonly critics – it’s a record that you have to tell other people about. Intimate and immediate, Tell Me is like stumbling on to a secret cache of beauty and mystery every time it spins around your turntable.
“For me songwriting is very…it’s almost like an accident. ‘Oh I accidentally wrote about that.’ I sit down with the urge to write a song and then afterward it turns out being really personal. I get really overwhelmed by how I feel a lot and sometimes – I feel like my body and my brain can’t deal with all the different emotions and I feel like I’m just going to explode,” says Mayfield.
“Usually at that moment – when I’m full of emotion – is when I sit down and try to write a song because it takes my mind off of it. That’s the same thing that happens to people who write in a diary – if I can write down how I feel then it’s off my head. If I write about something I’m not thinking about it because I wrote about it and that’s where it is now – it’s in a song, it’s not in my head.”
It’s this very real, very of-the-moment catharsis that separates Tell Me from the packs of sad, strumming artists wandering our world as we speak. The tension and confusion that defines emotional conflict can often be lost when a writer works from hindsight, reevaluating their responses from a comfortable distance. Mayfield’s lyrics on songs like “Our Hearts Are Wrong” and “Trouble,” even her cover of “Blue Skies,” written by her brother and former Cadillac Sky guitarist David Mayfield, leave all the rough edges on – the pain of happy memories, the joy of bitter endings, the whole messy business of being young and being somewhere in the vicinity of love.